Camping 101: Bears, Oh My!

One of the biggest myths I encounter is always: bears will eat me.

I haven’t had any serious bear encounters where I felt that my life was threatened. The biggest one that I remember took place when I was very young. My mother, sister, and I were at a park called Bear Gap having a picnic. Mom was cooking over the grill while my sister and I were playing. At some point, this family of bears decided that mom’s cooking smelled pretty good and decided to visit us. I remember the largest bear was up on its hind legs and there were a couple of younger cubs walking along. Mom quickly broke-down the setup and getting us out the situation quickly, without incident.

If you are hesitant to go camping because of the fear of bears, read this section closely. 

One of the largest culprits of bear/human encounters is because of folks who feed them. I have heard stories of folks at one campground who were feeding the bear by hand. I even followed a vehicle through the mountains as they dropped off marshmallows at strategic locations the whole way back to their camp to attract bears! This can turn deadly very quickly. The state of Pennsylvania puts up big warning signs all over the campgrounds that state not to feed wildlife as well as stating the common sense reasons as to why it’s a bad idea. Following these rules would make for a better experience for both campers and the animals. The only problem is, some folks find it next to impossible to follow rules.

When a wild animal becomes acclimated to being fed by humans, they start to expect it.  Imagine that bear who was fed regularly by folks at a campsite that shows up one evening to find a family not willing to share?  One of two things will happen: 1) the bear will attack and potentially kill or seriously injure someone or, 2) the bear will be killed by someone at the campsite or a park official—which is easier than un-training.

IMPORTANT TIP: Do not feed the wildlife! It doesn’t matter how cute or courteous the animal may seem, do not offer it foot, period. Although I already stated this, it bares pointing out again.

There is a very healthy population of black bears in Pennsylvania.  Each year during the three day PA black bear hunting season, thousands of bears are harvested. The largest harvest in history took place in 2005 with over 4,000 bears being taken by hunters.   The population for black bears hovers somewhere around 15,000 across the state.  They can range from a couple hundred pounds to more than 500.  In November 2010, an 879 pound black bear was harvested in Pike County.

A lot of folks are against hunting; however, hunting provides an opportunity for management of the species. Imagine if nobody hunted bears (or other wildlife for that matter!)—just think of how many more animal versus vehicle accidents there would be; increases in human animal confrontations resulting in deaths; damage to property, etc.  Hunting provides a viable means to help keep a population in check.  Whether or not you are pro or anti hunting, you cannot dispute the fact that hunting is good for the animals and humans both.

What to Do During a Bear Encounter

Believe it or not, for being as large as they are, bears are not generally outwardly aggressive.  In fact, they try to avoid human interaction as much as possible.  A good way to prevent bumping into a bear while hiking or camping is to not walk around quietly.  You heard me correctly—make a lot of noise!  At outdoors shops you can find what is known as bear bells which are usually attached via carabiner to a loop on a backpack, belt loop, or any other things that will let is move freely and make the bell ding.  That way if you are walking towards a bear that you cannot see or realize is there, the sound of the bell will often times be an alert to them that a human is near, thus prompting them to move away from the sound.  While walking around you can talk loudly, sing songs, or make other types of noise to let anything ahead know that you are coming.  It’s much better than walking up and surprising the bear.

But what if you are at your camping site and a bear shows up?  First thing to do is stop and look around.  Do you notice any cubs in the vicinity?  If not, that’s a good sign—a bear with cub(s) can be much more aggressive than one flying solo.  Think about what you have with you.  For example, if you have some pots and pans nearby you could start smacking them together loudly to make a bunch of noise, or even yell, “Get outta here!”  Often times, bears will be dissuaded by the noise and get out of dodge.  Observe their reaction to your action.  Is the bear moving away or coming closer? Is it popping its jaws and huffing?  If so, it’s time to move on to plan B.  If you are carrying bear spray, now would be a good time to have it at the ready.  If the bear keeps moving in closer and closer, be prepared to use it.  If the bear sneaks off, that’s a good sign, however, that doesn’t mean that you should let your guard down. Plan ahead and think of what you can do if the bear comes back.

Setting a Perimeter

If you are especially scared of bears, you can always try to help keep yourself alerted in the event that one sneaks in during the middle of the night.  One technique would be to get a bunch of the bear bells mentioned earlier (or any bells for that matter) and a bunch of twine or 550 cord.  Use the line to make a perimeter around your safe zone and place the bells at each one of the four corners.  String the line up about 2-3 feet off of the ground.  If anything large comes into contact with the line, the bells will sound alarming you of a visitor.

Keep Your Site Clean

The following list of tips is important in helping to maintain not only a bear-free site, but help keep any animals away.  While it may not work 100% of the time, proactive steps now are better than reactive steps later.

  1. Do not leave food items lying around and dispose of food waste and leftovers properly. Bears do not have the best vision, but their sense of smell goes unrivaled. Do not tempt their tummies by leaving scraps of food, candy bar wrappers, or other things strewn about.
  2. Tie food up in a tree out of reach or use bear boxes for storage. Find a tree branch that runs up 15 – 20 feet and throw a rope around it. On one side, tie up your bag of food.  On the other side, tie up the other side to the base of a tree or anchor point making sure you have plenty of slack. With rope over the branch, pull on the loose end to bring up the slack to elevate your back of food and tie off the other end once it is high enough. Some sites may have bear proof boxes that you are encouraged to keep your food items in—they aren’t there for scenery, use them.
  3. Do not sleep in clothing that you cooked food while wearing. Although you may not think of yourself as a human burrito, something else out there may think differently.
  4. Do not leave food items in your tent or shelter. Are you in a tent to sleep in or trying to run a wilderness convenience store with a 100% free blue light special?
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